Belfast councillors ban development boss from Israel trade trip
By Gareth Cross
Belfast councillors have voted against sending a representative on a business and investment mission to Israel.
Councillors rejected a plan to send the council's Director of Economic Development John Greer on the trip alongside five local businesses.
The decision was taken at a meeting of council's City Growth and Regeneration Committee on Wednesday.
Members were asked to back plans to send the development director or his nominee on the trip, set to take place at the end of July 2019, at a cost of no more than £1,500.
The trip was to be led by Invest NI and would also involve Catalyst Inc.
The aim of the visit was to “facilitate access to investment and new market opportunities for five Belfast based businesses”.
However, after a motion from Sinn Fein, seconded by SDLP, councillors voted against sending the economic director on the trip.
Councillors from Sinn Fein, the SDLP, People Before Profit and the Green Party voted against sending the director, while the Alliance and DUP voted in favour.
DUP councillor Guy Spence said that People Before Profit also raised an issue around council working with an Israel based company ‘Colu’ on a digital city currency for Belfast.
At the meeting councillors backed business missions to Boston, Nashville and Shenyang.
Councillor Spence said that he did not understand why Israel was targeted given that China had also been accused of human rights abuses.
He accused councillors of “cutting off their nose” on an issue that was supposed to promote local businesses on a worldwide stage.
Councillor Spence said that he believed political parties were coming under pressure from the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement which promotes boycotts against Israel due to their ongoing conflict with Palestine.
Belfast City Council is set to hold a vote on supporting the BDS movement on July 1.
He described the BDS movement as “anti-semitic” in nature.
“I do hope this isn’t the road or direction council is going down. We have had a very good working relationship and what’s important is getting best for business,” Councillor Spence said.
He said that he understood it was IT companies making the trip and that Israel was the world leader in the sector.
“I couldn’t imagine it happening if it was any other country,” Councillor Spence said.
The DUP representative expressed concern that the decision could embolden anti-semitic feeling in Northern Ireland.
“We have had anti-semitic incidents in the past but we have seen a turnaround on the issue, we don’t something like this to bring that out,” he said.
“We want Belfast to be an international trade partner, of course we have ethics and morals, but we can’t cut off a world leader in industry, we must judge things on merit.”
Sinn Fein councillor Deidre Hargey chairs the committee and said that the trip was deemed "inappropriate".
"We have an international relations strategy where we work with key destinations across the world. We don't have a direct connection with Israel, or with Palestine for that matter, in terms of international relations," the former Lord Mayor told BBC's Talkback.
"There have been numerous UN violations of sanctions perpetrated against the Palestinian people.
"What we're trying to do in terms of ethical trading as a council is to look at all of those issues.
People Before Profit's representative on the committee Fiona Ferguson said that Councillor Spence had attempted to "conflate BDS with anti-semitism" and that this was "disgraceful".
She said she was "proud" of her role in helping to block the trip and that her party wouldn't be "taking lessons" from the DUP on the issue.
"It is clear from DUP frustration that the presence of socialists, who support the BDS campaign, in council can be very effective," Councillor Ferguson said.
The SDLP and the Green Party have been approached for comment on this story.